All kinds of unexpected things grow in Maine these days, thanks to the can-do, adventurous spirit of many of Maine’s farmers. (Also, their desire in a tough business to find a niche product with a nice return.) I’ve spotted artichokes growing in the garden at Pinetree Farms, local ginger and turmeric root at a farmstand in that same New Glocester neighborhood, and lately crates full of fresh edamame at Portland’s farmers market. Still, I was surprised – and delighted – a few weeks ago to come across locally grown Asian pears when I was cycling through Sweden, Maine.

Dan Cousins, farm manager of the town’s Pietree Orchard, brought two varieties to an evening encampment for Bike Maine, an annual weeklong bike ride around the state that celebrates, among other things, the state’s flourishing local food scene. Admittedly, I had just ridden more than 50 miles and was sore, tired, hungry and thirsty. But even if I had been none of these things, I’d still have fallen hard for the Shinseiki and Kosui Asian pears – drippingly juicy, crisp and fragrant – that he set out in crates for sampling.

Perfectly round and in shades of green-gold and russet, they were also quite beautiful. If I had any skill in that direction, I’d have wanted to paint them.

Pietree is one of just a very few farms in Maine experimenting with Asian pears. Renae Moran, associate professor of pomology at the University of Maine, could think of just one orchard growing them in Maine, and it wasn’t Pietree (more on that in a moment). That’s not counting her own attempts at the university’s Agriculture and Forest Experiment Station at Highmoor Farm. This year, she lost most of her trees, which she blames on the tough winter and the trees’ unfortunate location in a cold pocket. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that she’s not a fan of the fruit, “I’m not giving up on Asian pears yet,” she said.

Pietree orchardist Scott Miller (“like the lousy beer,” Miller said when asked to spell his name) has had better luck. “I’m encouraged,” he said. This year, in fact, was a banner year. “I’m pretty excited about them, really. We’ll see what the future brings.”

Keep in mind, Asian pears are still a very small crop, and a new crop at that, at Pietree, an orchard owned by novelist Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, that also sells U-pick apples, berries and vegetables. Just 25 or so trees that are seven years old and have been in fruit production for less than that. This year, the trees will produce about 12 bushels total.

Miller is growing seven varieties to see which like life in Maine. Is the winter too cold? Is the summer too cool? Is it too short? “All the different pieces,” Miller said, that go into making a tree happy.

So far, his favorite variety may be the the Hosui. “It’s almost like eating honey,” he said. “A very mild wildflower honey. They’re crisp, and they’re juicy. If I grow them like that again, I think I’ll be doing OK.”

Should you want to sample a Pietree Asian pear – and trust me, you should want to sample a Pietree Asian pear – there are just two places that you can: at the Pietree farmstand or at the Bridgton farmers market. They sell for $3 a pound, and the price they fetch is part of what motivated Pietree to grow them in the first place.

“Obviously competing with Shaws or Hannaford on European pears, it’s not necessarily a winning battle,” Cousins said. “A few European pears is great, but really we are reaching for the specialty crops, the things that are not quite everywhere. The Asian pears fit nicely into (that). We really enjoy those ‘you’re doing what?!’ kind of projects.”

‘SO VERY REFRESHING’

So that other Asian pear pioneer in Maine? The one to whom Moran referred? When Steven and Amy Bibula bought what has become Orchard Ridge Farm & Speciality Fruit Market in Gorham in 2011, they intended to grow vegetables. By year two, they’d switched to apples, and they’ve recently added a half acre of pear trees, including about 30 Asian pear trees, “and that’s a lot,” Steven Bibula said. “That catapults me into the top two or three growers in the state, I suspect.” He laughed, but he’s right.

The couple is growing four varieties but are not yet selling the Asian pears; instead, they’re sampling or “trialing” them with customers.

The Bibulas did not carefully calculate the plusses and minuses of growing Asian pears. There was no deliberate plan. There was no plan, period. “A couple from church gave us a housewarming present of a few Asian pears (trees),” he said. “I thought this was well-meaning but misguided. I didn’t want pears. But I put these trees in the ground. In 2013, only two years later, I noticed that the pears had come into fruit. Well, my experience with Asian pears before – my limited experience from supermarket sampling – was that I thought they were junk. And very expensive, too. Then I had Hosui and Chojuro right off the tree, dead ripe, and I knew then and there that I had a treasure in my hands and on my palate.

“You know, a fully ripe Asian pear is so very refreshing on a late summer day,” he continued. “It’s like biting into a cool, ambrosial waterfall.”

A SPECIAL TREAT

I had a similar experience the first time I ever tasted them. It was long ago and far away. As a young woman, I lived in Japan, where many fruits are treated with a kind of reverence and formality that seemed odd and unfamiliar to an American. Atsuko Fujimoto, a co-owner and baker at Ten Ten Pié in Portland and a native of Japan, said the pears can sell for as much as 1,000 yen apiece (about $8.50) in Tokyo these days, where they’re considered an appropriate hostess gift and often sold next to $100 “gift melons.”

The Japanese have been eating Asian pears since the 10th century, according to Shizuo Tsuji’s “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art,” but they rarely cook with them. Korean cooks, however, like to eat them in beef dishes (you see them called Korean pears, too). And Fujimoto suggested slices would be nice in a salad with some good cheese.

As I remember it, the Asian pear, or nashi, was always served peeled, often after dinner – a few slices nicely arranged. It was a special treat, the way at that time I might have thought of flourless chocolate cake as a special treat. (“And do you remember how big they were?” a friend and fellow expat said to me recently. “The size of a giant softball.”)

Some foods, say olives or coffee, take getting used to. Not Asian pears. For me, anyway, it was love at first bite. And – when I returned to the United States – deep disappointment. After a few years, I was able to find Asian pears in supermarkets or Asian markets here, but they never tasted the same, nor remotely good. My encounter with Pietree’s Asian pears earlier this month brought threefold pleasure: I was transported to Japan. I felt young again. The fruit was deeply delicious.

I bought a cute brown jacket when I lived in Japan that I wore for many years. The silver buttons had English, or rather Japanglish words on them: “Good luck very heartily.”

Asian pears: Welcome to Maine. I wish you good luck very heartily.